How do I teach?

In the 2008 advertisement titled, “Awareness Test,” the narrator asks the viewer to count the number of passes a basketball team makes while they run circles around one another. You can view it below.

After a few seconds, the narrator returns with the answer—thirteen—and viewers are left to pat themselves on the back if correct. “But,” the narrator adds, “did you see the moonwalking bear?” The commercial rewinds, revealing a man in a bear suit, moonwalking between the players. This Transport for London advertisement sought to increase awareness of bicyclists on the city’s roads by demonstrating the point: “It’s easy to miss something you’re not looking for.” I often use this short video in my introductory classes to illustrate that skills learned in the religious studies classroom can be useful in unexpected ways. Even Secretary of State John Kerry, fourth in the line of succession to the most powerful office in the world, now wishes he had majored in religion.

I help students recognize their position in larger systems of meaning and classification, whether it is in a broad survey course (such as “Humanities III: Western Civilization Since the French Revolution”) or in focused, upper-division undergraduate seminars (such as “Religion and Law in America”). In so doing, my courses develop skills valuable to students in a wide range of majors and professional trajectories. To emphasize the broad application of religious studies to students’ lives, I integrate social media into the classroom to creatively assess clarity and critical thinking. Students assigned to condense a portion of Durkheim’s Elementary Forms to 140 characters are often overwhelmed before realizing they are already skilled at condensing meaning. I usually receive a number of creative responses to this assignment (“Classification is something done by people for specific reasons”). This exercise is particularly useful in large-enrollment classes where social media contact can supplement limited face-to-face interaction, as in my sections of “Introduction to World Religions” with more than one hundred students.

For students in my courses, the realization that their everyday life choices—from their profiles on social media to their effort to do the “right” thing and follow directions—might be participating in systems beyond their immediate control or design is often an unsettling one. Much like my research on religion and the CIA, my teaching assumes that being unsettled is a helpful precondition to learning. My approach to teaching assumes that it is in those moments of unsettled realization that students are most able to see other, unexpected connections between religion and gender, race, class, or power.

What do I teach?

Religions of the World serves to welcome students into the academic study of religion. The course provides students basic theoretical tools with which the class can then examine relevant examples of the peoples, institutions, and groups commonly associated with the religions of the world. Of course, many things can be–and are–placed into these categories, and so the course is also interested in how things came to be called “world religions” in the first place. I endeavor to teach this class as an introduction, rather than a survey. Particularly for a course like “World Religions,” the idea of teaching “everything” is absurd. Both as a teacher and a historian, I’m influenced by Jonathan Z. Smith’s writings on the introductory course and I tend to agree with him that “less is better.”

Religion in U.S. History surveys the relationship between religion and American culture in both historical and contemporary contexts. The course pays special attention to the role played by religious people, ideas, and institutions in shaping broader American ideas about gender, race, and class. Course enrollment was 48 students.

Religion and Law is an upper-division course that forgoes an exhaustive survey in favor of “deep dives” into topics of special interest in American legal and religious history. Smaller enrollment caps allowed this class to be run as a seminar. Each section is built around a theme in American legal-religious culture, such as “Pluralism and First Amendment Jurisprudence” or examining the legacy of “dissent” in American religious tradition’s dealings with the state.

Humanities III: The Age of Revolution to the Present is an introductory course combining a focus on Western Civilizations with the study of important primary texts in religion, philosophy, literature, and the arts. This course provides coverage of these themes from the era of the French Revolution to the present day.